I have to tell you, in all honesty, that I usually go into hiding around St. Patrick’s Day.
“Why?” you ask. “Why would a person who loves Irish music, especially Irish singing, go into hiding on St. Patrick’s Day?”
The reason is simple. I love traditional Irish music. And traditional Irish singing, in Irish Gaelic, is very, very different from what most people think of as “Irish music.”
Old-Style Irish Singing
What many people think of as “Irish singing” (songs such as “Danny Boy” and “I’ll Take You Home Again, Kathleen”) actually come from the English and American Music Hall/Parlor Music tradition.
What they often don’t realize is that Ireland has a rich and ancient singing tradition that is very, very different from these all-too-familiar music hall songs. In Irish, it’s known as sean-nós — old style — singing.
What makes sean-nós “sean-nós”?
Sean-nós (pronounced “shan nohss”) means “old style.” It is a term that was devised to distinguish classical Gaelic singing from the music hall and art music singing styles that began to be popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Here are some of the features that distinguish sean-nós singing from other forms of Irish singing:
- It is always in Irish. A sean-nós song may have an English word here or there, but the bulk of the lyrics will be in the Irish language.
- It is unaccompanied. While there is a trend nowadays toward adding accompaniment to songs in the sean-nós tradition, classical sean-nós singing is always a capella.
- It’s almost always solo. You’ll occasionally hear two or three family members sing together, but even then the focus is on making the song sound as if it comes from a single voice.
- No dynamic variation. Unlike other forms of western music, which can get louder or softer to emphasize parts of the song, sean-nós singing does not allow for dynamic variation. Instead it uses ornamentation for emphasis (more on this in a bit).
- It’s metrically “free.” Sean-nós songs don’t always conform to a strict meter.
It’s not just the form it takes that distinguishes sean-nós singing from other forms of singing. It’s performed differently as well.
Unlike most performers, the sean-nós singer doesn’t interact with the audience, or attempt to convey the emotion of the song through gestures and facial expressions. In fact, he or she typically sings with eyes closed, or fixed on a location beyond the audience.
In fact, you might say that the sean-nós singer is not so much a performer as he or she is a medium for the music.
Some other characteristics of sean-nós singing include a somewhat nasal tone, closing quickly to singable consonants (such as m or n) to produce a drone, and the aforementioned ornamentation.
Types of ornamentation
There can be many different ways to ornament a song, but there are three main types of ornamentation that you’ll find in sean-nós singing:
- Melismatic. This may be as simple and understated as a grace note or as elaborate as any operatic melisma. Typically songs from Connacht are the most melismatic and songs from Ulster are the least melismatic.
- Rythmic. Rythmic variation is an extremely common form of ornamentation in all three regions of Ireland: Ulster, Connacht, and Munster.
- Intervalic. The simple practice of singing a different interval between notes in one passage than you did in the same passage in a different verse can have quite a dramatic effect.
The themes found in sean-nós singing can be as varied as in any culture. You’ll find songs celebrating the changes of the seasons, songs about lost or unrequited love (for more on this theme, see our blog post on Irish Gaelic Love Songs ), songs about war and betrayal.
One common theme in sean-nós singing is the “aisling” or “vision,” in which Ireland appears as a beautiful woman exorting her children to take up her cause.
The fairies appear in traditional Irish singing as well…and not in a good way. Contrary to the modern “new age” vision of fairies, the fairy folk in Ireland are generally to be feared and avoided (or at least approached with extreme caution!)
Knowing the back story
Unlike the ballad forms common to other cultures in the British Isles, Irish songs almost never tell a story…or at least, not a complete story.
Most of these songs were originally highly localized. The people singing them and the people listening to them already KNEW the story. The singer’s job wasn’t to re-tell the story, but rather to invoke the emotions behind it.
This, combined with the uniquely Gaelic idioms employed in such songs, can make sean-nós music a bit baffling to the newcomer.
It’s often not enough to know the language (or to have a good translation). To get the most out of songs in the sean-nós tradition, an understanding of Irish history and folklore, as well as a grasp of native idiom, is extremely helpful.
Still, it’s approachable
If all this makes Irish traditional singing seem a bit unapproachable, it shouldn’t. As with most classical musical forms, the more you understand, the deeper your enjoyment. But these songs can be appreciated for their beautiful tunes as well.
In fact, if you like Irish music at all, especially if you’re a musician who enjoys playing slow airs, you’ve probably already heard some sean-nós tunes. For example, some that appear in the popular tunebook “Ireland’s Best Slow Airs” include:
Buachaill Ón Eirne (“A Lad from the Éirne.” This tune also sometimes goes by the name “Come By The Hills”)
Éamonn a’ Chnoic (“Ned of the Hills”)
An Mhaighdean Mhara (“The Mermaid”)
Róisín Dubh (“Dark Rosaleen”)
Coinnleach Glás an Fhomhair (“The Green Stubble Fields of Autumn”)
The Real Deal
Some day, however, if you’re lucky, you’ll find yourself sitting in a pub on a dark, rainy night in Donegal or Conamara when suddenly the rattle of voices and glasses falls silent, and a single voice rises softly from the corner.
In the midst of the reverent silence, punctuated by the occasional murmer of “maith thú!” (“well done!”) or “mo cheol thú!” (“bravo!”), you’ll realize you’re in the presence of a singing tradition as old as Ireland itself.
This is the real deal…sean-nós singing. And as you fall under its thrall, you’re likely to find that any other kind of Irish singing pales by comparison.
More Bitesize Articles on Irish Singing
For more on Irish singing, see the articles below:
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* Saying “Sin é” — “That’s it” — is a traditional way to end a sean-nós song, and seemed a fitting way to end this article!